In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 158.
Do we find our stories or do our stories find us?
For me, it’s a little of both. I’ve always thought my true calling was to be a junk collector. I love patinas of rust. I love ragged, torn clothing. I love finding abandoned items on the street. I save old plastic jewelry, torn-apart wrapping paper, and random shiny objects in a big box called my “collage box.”
Similarly, I keep a computer document I call “stray phrases,” which is its own type of junk shop, a collection of odd sentences I’ve come across or thought of—stiff, voluptuous, rapturous, restrained, or just plain kooky, all of them special for reasons I can’t articulate. I just like them.
W. H. Auden once described writing a poem as connecting the best lines from his notebook, which mirrors the way I tend to write, especially when it comes to flash fiction. At some point after having kids—living in a state of perpetual transition on buses and subways, standing around on playgrounds—I started carrying a notebook in my back pocket. It was a type of net to capture stray thoughts, overheard conversations, or lines from whatever book I was reading.
My random jottings became part of my creative process. I type them up and either place them in my “stray phrases” document or in any number of other documents where I have writing projects in various stages of dress and undress.
Flash fiction allows the rags and detritus of the everyday to become gems and jewels. To be a junk collector is by definition a practice of looking at the world differently: finding purpose in other people’s castoffs, beauty in other people’s trash. Flash fiction holds similar transformative powers because brevity changes the contours of a conventional story.
“Part of the fun of writing them is the sense of slipping between the seams,” Stuart Dybek said of flash stories. “Within the constraint of their small boundaries the writer discovers great freedom. In fact, the very limitations of scale also demand unconventional strategies.”
Among these strategies is the repurposing of everyday, or found, forms of writing: A flash story can be a list, a letter, a text exchange, a Twitter argument. I’ve written stories in the form of customer reviews of Dansko clogs and a guest’s entry in a bed-and-breakfast log.
Leesa Cross-Smith wrote “Girlheart Cake with Glitter Frosting” in the form of a recipe that comprises a feast of “ingredients” that make up girlhood: “Too much black eyeliner. Roses. Champagne from a can, champagne in a bottle. ‘Music to Watch Boys To’ by Lana Del Rey.” The story goes on to list more singers, authors, celebrities, songs, movies, and objects—creating a montage of the joys and conflicts of girlish youth.
Michael Czyzniejewski uses an outline for his story “The Braxton-Carter-Van-Damme-Myers-Braxton-Carter Divorce: An Outline.” Kathy Fish uses a dictionary entry in her commentary on human nature, “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild.”
Kim Magowan wrote a brilliant 100-word story, “Madlib,” in the form of a page from a Mad Libs game book. Sam Martone used Internet jargon for “404—Page Not Found,” a winding story that mingles the cold tech speak of error remediation with the fictional digressions of the page’s anonymous author. Lucy Zhang used the how-to form in her sultry hybrid piece, “How to Make Me Orgasm.”
Found forms can incorporate visual elements as well. In “The Death of Your Son: A Flow Chart,” for example, Isle McElroy tells the story of a family through the chart’s branching paths of life events. In “LifeColor Indoor Latex Paints®—Whites and Reds,” Kristen Ploetz inventively divides lived experience into whites and reds, starting with the first light of birth (a color named “Hospital Light—AR101”).
Found forms and found text gain layers of meaning when they are repurposed for a story. Annie Dillard described turning a found text into a poem this way: “The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.”
Flash can animate ordinary places of discourse, alert us to the stories within otherwise pedestrian prose. It allows one to walk through the world as a junk collector might, looking at the different narrative objects that surround us, wondering if they might be vessels for a story.
Flashpoint: Junk Collecting With Words
Collecting junk naturally leads to playfulness because of the way randomness and the accidental is part of the process. Be a verbal junk collector: Search for text you might create a story with or text that might stand alone as a story. Look at your junk mail, the letter you receive with a new credit card offer. Look through the e-mails in your spam folder. Go to the library and read through old newspapers or diaries.
See how you can give the “junk” you find a different life through the simple frame of a story, a new context. The junkyard of everyday language is a playground of story possibilities.
Adapted from The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story, published last month by the University of New Mexico Press.
Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and cofounder of 100 Word Story. He is the author of The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story (University of New Mexico Press, 2023), All the Comfort Sin Can Provide (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo (Chronicle Books, 2017), and Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories (Press 53, 2015). He is also an editor of Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19, 2019). Faulkner’s stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the Southwest Review, and Tin House, among other publications, and have been anthologized in collections such as New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton, 2018) and The Best Small Fictions 2016 (Braddock Avenue Books, 2017). His essays on creativity have been published on Literary Hub and in the New York Times, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Find Grant online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Listen to his podcast, Write-minded, and subscribe to his newsletter, Intimations: A Writer’s Discourse.Art: Jakub Jacobsky